Treating Symptoms Without Ignoring Cause

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We all know we should address the cause of problems rather than simply the symptoms. The familiar adage has the ring of truth to it from human experience. For example, if you have Covid-19, I am sure you want cough syrup to limit the annoying cough or some kind of breathing apparatus to open the passageways to the lungs. Yet, most people know that those address the symptoms and not the cause. That is why there is so much talk about a vaccine and other kinds of treatments that restrict the virus’s attack on the body. Very little conversation circles around alleviating symptoms. Vaccines and preventatives address the cause. In the process, we would ideally like both, relief and cure. That is why I would rather restate the common expression, “Don’t treat the symptom but rather the cause” to be “Don’t treat just the symptom but also the cause.” We really want both but mostly the cure, since to cure something means to erase the need for symptom relief.

Shifting from Covid19 to the other issues plaguing our culture at present, we are in a precarious situation when cause is not addressed at all, but symptoms are treated aggressively almost to the complete neglect of the cause. This is a cultural phenomenon today that is mystifying. I could list some things that have garnered unlimited and devoted attention in our culture at present both in the social and political spheres. I will save my breath or in this case, paper, since these items attract almost non-stop attention by media pundits and politicians. I am even hearing our cultural crises addressed non-stop from pulpits in churches and on blogs like this. So, it would be best not to sound simply like all others, drawing attention to deficiencies or grievances in society. We are all fatigued by the volume on them. I want to dig deeper.

I would prefer to draw attention to the cause of these controversies regardless of the topic or social malady. We have a sin problem. It is nothing new. Sin has always been crouching at the door desiring to master us (Genesis 4:7), even since the beginning. And, in yielding to sin, it succeeds in mastery. The Bible states and experience proves that the humanity has never gotten over the ill effects of sin. The basic message of the Bible is this: God created the whole world. Humans in particular were created in his own image. People disobeyed (sinned) long ago and have been helplessly irretractable ever since. God’s solution was not to force compliance, but offer himself (actually his Son) to not only suffer the punishment for our disobedience but empower those who live by faith in him to live free from the seemingly inescapable claws of sin, living the life for which we were created- even as far as seeing that image once distorted to be fully restored. That is the problem and solution in a nutshell- healthy creation, death-inducing sin, life-giving redemption. Jesus referred to this narrative as simply, Good News (Luke 4:18).

When it comes to symptoms (particular sins) of our core deficiency (sin nature), they abound. There are too many sins to list, though the Bible contains several lists that condense the problems (Exodus 20:1-17; Romans 1:18-32; Colossians 3:5-10; arising from the core cause. The reason the Bible has neither a comprehensive list of sins anywhere in it pages nor a compelling desire to create one comes not from a lack of fodder but from the assumption that sinful people will sin. That is what they/we do. The Church throughout history has also had only scant mention of lists of sins (cardinal or deadly sins being a rare exception and not pretending to be fully inclusive itself) because it is painfully obvious and repeated over and over again that the core issue of sin will find expressions that will, like a persistent leak, find its way into attitudes and behaviors that calcify and are difficult to remove simply by determined resistance. The dozens of lists that exist in the Bible are in smaller bites because the sins (plural) themselves are expressions of the root problem- sin (singular). There is no need for a comprehensive list since these are more or less expressions of a deeper disease. Sins are the avenues of expressing the deep-seeded, underlying problem of sin that keeps people from living out their full purpose for which they were created. It has been historically called “The Human Dilemma.” We want to be better but cannot seem to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, more education and stronger wills. The dilemma is that we understand we have a problem but have not yet found the cure by human ingenuity. It is not an exact comparison, but sins are the symptomatic expressions of the moral cancer (sin) that is the cause which simply cannot be suppressed or ignored but must be cured. Only when the sin problem is addressed, may the sins that outwardly express it be also addressed. Only in its cure, does the dilemma have a solution- forgiveness, healing and empowerment to live out our created purpose which results in people living free from the hold of sin, becoming more like our Creator (2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10).

There was a day when at least a large segment of the Christian culture understood the problem (cause) and its expressions (symptoms and/or outcomes). In fact, there was a day when both sacred and secular theologians and philosophers understood, assumed and communicated the distinctions of cause and symptoms and tried to address them in order- first acknowledge the cause or the human dilemma and core problem facing all of us; and second in dealing with the cause, we single out the symptoms or particular expressions in individuals and cultures that hold us back from being our best selves.

Sadly, it seems to be in vogue to spend all of one’s time focusing upon the second part, those expressions as though addressing them properly will eliminate the dilemma altogether. In other words, the naïve notion asserts if we fix Wall Street, banking and the people involved in making them go and you will effectively reduce or eliminate greed. We know that to be impossible. Fix the judicial system and we will eradicate injustice. But, injustice has existed long before modern judicial systems and will outlive them all. Fix systems that provoke or encourage racism and racism will disappear. But, racism is not about systems and never has been. There are deeper human factors that will always heighten fear and create divisions between people- us and them. Fix classism through economic balance and it will surface in other ways. Fix the problems of pornography and prostitution and lust will disappear. That is sadly infantile.

Even some well-meaning theologians, religious practitioners and philosophers have taken the bate and have become immersed in trying to satisfactorily fix these problems in isolation from one another. However, these are not stand-alone sins but intertwined expressions of a sinful humanity. Most of us know that these same issues have plagued virtually every society throughout history without being fixed with any degree of finality by addressing the issues in isolation. The optimism of those who believe addressing these symptoms fixes the problem is staggeringly naïve and has somehow drifted off course from what was once an axiom- human behavior does not change until the humans themselves change. The core must be addressed. The attitudes and behaviors will follow.

I am not suggesting that we retreat from acknowledging the pandemic problems of greed, selfishness, racism, sexism, lust, hatred, anger, theft, etc. We should always be vigilant to attack these will all of our effort. But, we should understand that treating them alone will never resolve the issue nor result in solving the human dilemma.

I am suggesting the need for a more comprehensive revival of the heart. I know humanity from personal experience. I am human. I have a family of humans. I have counseled humans. I have worked intimately in the area of the subject of this blog with people from my own culture and around the world. I have wrestled with it as a theologian and have discussed the matter deeply with philosophers both foreign and domestic, sacred and secular. And, I have come to the conclusion that none of these problems will ever be satisfactorily fixed or resolved in permanent ways by spending all of our attention upon them. There will always be ways for which people live out the worst of our basic moral core.

So, what do we do? We do the same thing that every society has done that has truly addressed systemic change with moderate success. There must be an acknowledgement that we are flawed people in need of God’s help. We must admit our brokenness and seek the kind of heart change that leads to revival. It happened in the first and second centuries. It happened in isolated places throughout the following fifteen centuries. It took a broken world by storm in the eighteenth and nineteenth century in England and America. There was a spiritual awakening and depth of remorse and confession that led to forgiveness and heart change, resulting in cultural reform. It impacted economics, justice, vocation, liberation of slaves, equality of all people and the list goes on. However, none of the primary spokespersons and instigators of these revivals focused on these reforms. They addressed them as a secondary result of a more desperate cause.

We start with remorse. Healthy remorse leads to confession. Confession is the only route to true forgiveness followed by meaningful repentance. Repentance leads to attitude and behavioral change. This is historically the only way to revival of hearts and societies. Then, and only then, do societal maladies, deficiencies and failures stand a chance of being mended, healed and restored.

Some friends of mine have asked why I am not more vociferous in addressing the individual ills in society. I actually have addressed most of them. One only needs to read my blogs throughout time to see that I am keenly aware of the serious nature of societal problems. I am not ambivalent. I take action and have strong opinions on the issues that plague us. I am not a bystander hoping things will somehow self-resolve or go away. I am, however, convinced that fixing the cause is of supreme importance. Revived people do not need constant correction since the very nature of their revival brings the needed correction of attitudes and behaviors desperately needed.

My prayer is that people are aware of the deeper need that addresses the root cause of these problems. I pray for acknowledgement, brokenness and remorse which leads to confession to God leading to God’s forgiveness that is lasting and life-changing. When that occurs, we begin the change known as repentance with the power that only God can give to forgiven people. Then watch what happens. Symptoms and expressions that we thought were impenetrably resistant begin to crumble as love, health, and grace lubricates societies and remedies problems. Healthy societies only exist where there is a healthy citizenry. There is no exception. Join me in prayer and active promotion of that which addresses the cause while we are keenly engaged in relieving the symptoms.


By Matthew Thomas

In my sixth decade of seeing God work simply increases my faith. Born in California, raised in Washington, ministered in Washington, Oregon, Canada, Philippines, Idaho and now all over the world has given me reason to believe and praise. My wife, Marlene and four children (Luke, Mitch, Samuel and Charese) give me reason to give deep thanks. My eight beautiful grandchildren (Jalen, Jordan, Katelin, Andrew, Eli, Callia, Asher and Mikaela) give me reason to see that grace reaches beyond our immediate present into our un-conceived future. Serving with a great team in the Free Methodist Church makes me a blessed person in a blessed place, serving with blessed people.

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